The Early Days
Fighting has always been a part of Hollywood, going back to the days of early film when Lumiere captured the Glenroy Brothers boxing in 1894.
Eventually, fighting would go from being captured to full on scripted productions. One of the first starred Charlie Chaplin. The Champion was made in 1915 and gave us a lot of the same tropes that we continue to use today, including the training montage.
As film progressed, so did the fighting within films. Movies like Kirk Douglas' Champion in 1949 and Marlon Brando's On the Waterfront in 1954 shed a darker, more realistic light on the fighting world. A world that many at the time considered to be "seedy" and "blue collar." Fighting, namely boxing, was hardly a mainstream activity but something that the "underclass" and "uneducated" partook in out of means.
Fighting in films would come under a major change in the late '60s, when a force of nature would explode onto the scene and into the homes of millions of television owners. That person would be:
First cast as Green Hornet's sidekick, Kato, Bruce Lee would change the dynamic of fighting in pop culture forever. He showed a new form of fighting that hadn't been seen by most and the excitement surrounding it would change the action film genre forever. There was no going back.
With Lee's success on the small screen, it was no surprise that he took it to the big one. Starting with The Big Boss in 1971, Lee's fighting style excited audiences. Not just in America, but all over the world. Lee became an international sensation and changed the landscape of the "fight scene." Producers could no longer "phone a fight scene in," they would have to deliver the excitement that Lee brought.
Lee's death in 1973 would pave way for filmmakers to fill the void with cheap surrogates.
Boxing Comes Back Briefly
In the late 70's, a resurgence of boxing movies would occur thanks to a little independent film by the name of Rocky.
Rocky was not only a critical success, but also a success at the box office. That kind of success ushered in a slew of film hoping to capitalize on the the success of "the fight movie." Films like Barbara Streisand's The Main Event in 1979, which was more about cashing in than it was about showcasing fighting in any sense of serious light.
Boxing reclaimed some of it's glory days with Martin Scorsese's classic Raging Bull in 1980, but it was an end to an era. There was a new fighting style on the scene and it would occur in a 1987 film that's not exactly known for it's fights.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'm going to ignore the Chuck Norris era, not out of disrespect or hatred – trust me, I love me some Chuck Norris 80's action – I just want this article to be enjoyable and readable and not the length of a graduate thesis. We all can agree that Norris existed and he was awesome. So let's all move on.)
While most of the '80s lent itself to beefy action heroes blowing up the screen and delivering cheesy one-liners, Lethal Weapon delivered something else. Something fresh.
The titular character came in the form of Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs who was trained in the deadliest of arts. Good with his hands and even better with a gun, Riggs proved himself to be, well, a "lethal weapon" on all counts.
It would be his scene with Gary Busey's Mr. Joshua at the end of the film that would introduce film audiences to a new way of fighting: mixed martial arts.
The fight was choreographed by Rorion Gracie of the famous Gracie family. Gracie was known throughout the world for his abilities in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He also eventually became one of the co-founders of what would be known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Gracie's skills are very apparent in the fight fight scene between Gibson and Busey. It's up close and personal techniques are showcased for the first time on the silver screen. Elbows, knees, kicks, throws, and punches. Everything we take for granted today, was introduced in that fight. Busey is subdued at the end with a triangle hold by Gibson. This was the one of the first films to show, on a technical level, grappling and ground work.
Lethal Weapon and the late '80s paved the way for one action star to explode on the screen. While none of his films met the critical and box office success of Lethal Weapon, his films are forever known internationally by everyone. The star I'm speaking of?
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Say what you will about Jean-Claude Van Damme films, but he's earned the right to be listed in the history of action films. Sure, he might not be a legend like Bruce Lee or have the kind of box office success that Chuck Norris had, but what he brought to the silver screen was a new dawn of fighting in the movies.
While he acted in small roles in much smaller movies, not to mention one embarrassing moment in 1984's Breakin', it would be 1988's Bloodsport and 1989's Kickboxer that would launch Van Damme into stardom. His mix of martial arts and ballet training would, once again, raise the bar for fighting in movies. More importantly, it would introduce American moviegoers to a legitimate world of fighting that had been happening in other countries for years before people would ever hear the words "Ultimate Fighting Championship."
Bloodsport was the true story of Frank Dux becoming the first American to win the Kumite, an overseas tournament where fighters of all fighting styles battle one another. These different fighting styles hadn't normally been seen in movies and now they were all in one place, everything from street brawling wrestler to karate master.
Not only were the fighting styles different, but the tournament itself was something that mainstream movie audiences, up to this point, weren't exposed to. Movies prior to Bloodsport were either about the closed ring of a boxing match or kung fu happening in a real world location.
The ending of Bloodsport was also different. For most of the movie, the main villain REALLY needs a beat down, but rather than knock him out, he loses by saying "uncle" or, better put, being submitted. One of the firsts in film: a tap-out.
As for Kickboxer, it was a film that brought Muay Thai to America. The idea that organized fighting could showcase boxing AND kicking at the same time was relatively unknown in America other than to hardcore fight fans. Remember, this was before the days of the internet and it's not like Muay Thai fighting was taking place on ESPN. America had boxing. That was it. THAT and whatever Hollywood gave us at the local movie plex.
SIDENOTE: If you don't think Van Damme and Kickboxer are important to the history of MMA, here's what UFC fighter Nick Diaz told TMZ about both:
"I used to watch all his movies. That’s how I got started doing kicks and doing the splits. I thought it was the coolest thing when I was eight years old. ... When I started training, I thought there were people doing the same type of training like (in) Kickboxer, around the world. ... I think that’s how one should train. If you’re gonna fight full contact or MMA, you better train every part of your body, like old school."
See? Okay, where was I?
Fighting had, once again, changed. It was more real than it had even been before. It was more about a couple of punches and a witty line. If producers wanted to make money at the box office, they would have to give audiences something MORE. It was time for a new breed of action star.
At the same time as Van Damme was fighting in the Kumite, another actor was making his way to the big screen. What Van Damme did for kicks, Steven Seagal did for grappling. While Van Damme's fight scenes were graceful, Seagal's were gritty, dirty and usually ended in a broken bone or four.
Seagal started his career in Hollywood choreographing fight scenes. The first movie he worked on was Sean Connery's Bond film, Never Say Never Again. In 1988, he exploded on the scene with Above the Law.
Trained in the Asian art of aikido, Seagal's fight scenes were more up close and personal than had been seen before. What they brought to action movie history was speed. Aikido is more about the reaction to an opponents attack rather than launching an offensive strike. This allowed Seagal's fights to seem fluid. It's this fluidity a that also introduced a quicker style of editing which helped Seagal's fight scenes seem even quicker.
Seagal and Van Damme dominated the action movie through most of the 90's but unfortunately, the quality of their films (along with their off-screen behaviors) caused their careers to fizzle to straight-to-video releases by the end of the '90s. As their careers fizzled, there was something happening in the real world that would change films once again.
Birth of the UFC
Co-founded in 1993 by the famous Brazilian Gracie family, the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship consisted of all-out, eight-man, no-holds-barred tournaments. UFC 1 took place on November 12, 1993 in Denver, Colorado. Up to this point fight fans were used to watching events that were one fight, one fighting style. With UFC 1, there was a similar style similar to Van Damme's Bloodsport. UFC 1 poised the question to fight fans: "Could a wrestler beat a boxer?"
UFC 1 was supposed to be a one-off event but its success with pay-per-view audiences caused there to be subsequent UFC events.
Eventually the Gracie family, as well as the other invested partners, sold the UFC franchise to SEG productions. Unfortunately, by the late '90s, SEG was staring at a possible bankruptcy. This caused them to sell to a pair of casino-owning brothers, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta, and their business partner, Dana White.
In January of 2001, Zuffa, Inc. was formed and purchased the UFC from SEG for a mere $2 million. Zuffa, Inc. brought the UFC to Las Vegas, grew the product over a decade, and made a landmark television deal with FOX. From there, the rest is history. The UFC was here to stay and bigger than ever.
With the UFC now making it's way through the Zuffa era, it would only be a matter of time before full-on MMA would appear in big budget Hollywood films. The world wouldn't have to wait long. Things would change June 14, 2002.
Jason Bourne and the New Action Hero
The concept was simple. A top CIA assassin trained by a secret division within government, develops amnesia while on a mission and over the course of getting his memory back, he unlocks all of this "secret" training that he can do.
The quick and dirty version: the boy can kick some serious ass.
The 2002, Doug Liman directed Bourne Identity set the tone, but the fight scenes were very traditional filmmaking. You can see in the first Bourne film that it's more of the standard "wide shot-medium-shot-close up" filming style.
It wasn't until Paul Greengrass took over the reigns for 2004's sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, that the fighting really took off.
A former British journalist, Greengrass' shooting style is know for its fast pace with a lot of handheld camera work. This allowed the audience to not only be a part of the action, but practically be in the fight itself.
Greengrass returned again with the third film in the trilogy, The Bourne Ultimatum. Once again raising the stakes of a "fight scene" in an action film.
Notice the difference between 2002 and 2007?
The box office and critical success of the Bourne trilogy caused every producer in Hollywood to look for THEIR Bourne series. At the same time, the ones that had projects already in production, looked to inject a little "Bourne flavor" into their flicks.
A Post-Bourne World
With the Bourne films changing the landscape of fighting in action films, even one of the most iconic characters in movie history started throwing an elbow or two and grappling. Something that he had never done before in over 20 films. Yes, I'm talking about Bond. James Bond.
2006's Casino Royale gave the world a grittier Bond. A more Bourne-like Bond. One that wasn't afraid to get in there and get dirty. Daniel Craig's Bond wasn't afraid of getting hit. Quite different from the days of Pierce Brosnan or Roger Moore and worlds away from the Steven Seagal choreographed Sean Connery.
In 2008, the entire landscape of Hollywood blockbusters changed with the introduction of Marvel Studios and the resurgence of comic book movies, which up to this point had been ruined thanks to Joel Schumacher and his "Bat Nipples."
The success of Marvel's Iron Man unleashed a whole new world. A new form of fighting was here and there's not a more poignant scene that showcases this fact, than in 2010's Iron Man 2.
The introduction of Scarlett Johanson as Black Widow, a former assassin turned S.H.I.E.L.D. Operative, gave audiences one bad ass female that could take down multiple attackers with her mix of grapples and acrobatic kicks. At the same time, Tony Stark's driver/sidekick/bodyguard, Happy Hogan, is a former boxer (a fact only alluded to in the movies, but fairly well known in the books). In this scene, Happy and Black Widow enter a compound to seek out the dangerous villain, Whiplash.
I give you "The Boxer vs The MMA Fighter."
This style of fighting continues throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Ant Man and Black Panther have all used every fight move in the book, and some that aren't, to take down their opponents. It's not just the Marvel world either, the DC cinematic universe is just getting off the ground and already has direct ties to, not only the UFC, but a specific UFC fighter.
While doing press to promote 2016's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman actor Ben Affleck stated that Batman's fighting style in the new film was "UFC influenced" and "Conor McGregor style."
Could the greatest detective square off against the UFC's greatest fighters?
Getting out of the comic book world, MMA and "UFC influenced" fighting can be seen in some of today's biggest action movies. Literally, as many of the UFC's top stars have turned to action stars after their time in the cage is over or, in Ronda Rousey's case, while still fighting.
The former UFC women's bantamweight champion can be seen in films like Expendables 3, Furious 7 and Entourage. While the last flick is hardly an action movie, there is a memorable (depending on how much you like Entourage) scene where the lovable Turtle thinks he can last 30 seconds in the Octagon with Rousey, if so, he gets to take her out. It's scenes like this that takes MMA a part of mainstream pop culture.
Rousey's next film will be a reboot of the 1989 Patrick Swayze Classic, Road House. This will be the first time a UFC fighter is playing the lead in a MAJOR motion picture release (more on this in a second). Regardless of your personal feelings about Rousey, you can't deny that she's on the way to becoming the UFC's version of WWE's Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
She's not the only UFC fighter to appear on the big screen, UFC legends Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture have both appeared in major roles in Hollywood films. She's not even the first female fighter to grace the silver screen.
Carla Carano hasn't exactly found the success for her acting as Rousey has, but she has paved the way for Rousey appearing in films such as the massive hits Fast & Furious 6 and Deadpool.
In 2011, she starred in the small budget (NOT a MAJOR release) film Haywire directed by independent film guru, Steven Soderbergh. Unfortunately, the film failed to connect with audiences, but it did manage to capture one of the greatest fight scenes of all time on film.
Various other UFC fighter have appeared in films. Some just in bit parts, but sometimes it's not the size of the part, but the movie that it's in that matters. Take UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre who had a short, but memorable fight, in Captain America: Winter Soldier.
Who's to say what will be next. There is one thing that's for sure, audiences won't tolerate going backward. History has proven that. As fighting in real life becomes a bigger spectacle, so will fighting in films.
For now, MMA in films is here to stay. At least until the next big thing hits the fighting world.
Although I feel like we have at least a few years before movies like Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, The Running Man and The Hunger Games become a reality.